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Thematic Guide to Islam in France

Ronald Bruce St John, Independent Scholar, Albuquerque, NM


Following the Muslim invasion of the Iberian Peninsula in 711 C.E., Muslim forces moved into southern France, where they were defeated at the Battle of Tours in 732. Muslim invaders left their mark on southern France, and in the seventeenth century, a group of Spanish Muslims deported from Spain settled in France. Widespread Muslim immigration to France began at the beginning of the twentieth century, and by the end of that century, France had the most Muslims of any European state.

Muslim Immigration to France

The Muslim presence in France is largely the product of the French colonization of North Africa after 1830. Algeria became a department of France in 1848, although its Muslim population was not granted French citizenship, and remained a part of France until Algerian independence in 1962. At the turn of the 20th century, the first groups of Algerian workers arrived in metropolitan France, and during World War I, some 132,000 North Africans were brought to France to replace French workers called to active duty. Another 15,000 North Africans were called to arms.

Many of these first immigrants were repatriated after the war; however, the influx of workers from North Africa continued until the depression of the 1930s, resumed after World War II, and peaked in the 1960s. In 1974, France interrupted the immigration of North African labor and attempted to reduce the number of foreign residents, especially Algerians. French efforts to reverse the flow of immigrants were largely unsuccessful, and in 1984, France passed legislation to guarantee and stabilize the residence status of immigrants.

Muslim Demographics and Practice

French law prohibits the inclusion of obligatory questions concerning religious affiliation or race in the national census; consequently, the precise size of the Muslim population in metropolitan France is not known. On the lower end, the Pew Research Center in 2010 estimated the Muslim population to be 3,574,000 or 5.7 percent of the total population. On the higher end, the Institut national de la statistique et des études economiques—INSEE (National Institute of Statistics and Economic Studies) and the Institut national d'études démographiques— INED (National Institute of Demographic Studies) in 2010 estimated there were 5 to 6 million Muslims in France. Whichever estimate is accepted, France is the European country with the highest percentage of Muslims as well as the highest absolute number of Muslim inhabitants; moreover, the majority of Muslims residing in France are French citizens.

Brouard and Tiberj (2005) are among the very few scholars to explore the percentage of the Muslim population who consider themselves observant Muslims. Their survey of French of African, Maghribi, and Turkish origin, including immigrants, found that 66 percent declared themselves to be Muslim and 16 percent without religion with the remaining belonging to other religions. The level of "practice," measured as one monthly attendance at a "religious service," was similar to that of a non-immigrant mirror population (22% versus 19%); however, the proportion of persons considering their religion "extremely important" was higher (19% versus 4%). Finally, 72 percent of self-declared Muslims declared that their religion was "very" or "extremely important" for "guiding their conduct." Observant Muslims make up the second largest religion in France behind Roman Catholics; Sunni Islam is the dominant branch of the faith.

Muslim Institutions

In the early 1980s, the permanent settlement of Muslim residents in France strengthened the presence of Islam and led to the establishment of Muslim institutions, including mosques and prayer rooms, higher education facilities, and specialty food stores. According to conservative government estimates, the number of prayer rooms and mosques in France increased from around 255 in 1983 to approximately 1,600 in 2005. The geographic distribution of these facilities provides a rough idea of the spatial structure of Muslim life. More than 400 are located in the Île-de-France, 219 in the Rhône-Alpes region, 173 in the Provence-Alpes-Côte d'Azur area, and 101 in the Nord-Pas-de-Calais region. French law does not allow for the establishment of confessional cemeteries; however, more than 60 cemeteries include specific enclosures for Muslims, together with one exclusively Muslim cemetery created during World War I.

Beginning in the early 1990s, a number of institutions of higher education in Islamic studies were established in France, primarily in the Paris area. In addition to offering courses in Arabic and French, these institutes provide a space for the growing number of Francophone Muslim scholars and intellectuals. Several of these institutes also train imams and educators. The variety of Muslim media also increased dramatically after 1990, and when combined with an emerging Muslim music industry, contributed to the emergence of a national Muslim audience.

Politics of Islam in a Secular State

Muslim institutions and practices in France are affected by a secular legal framework that establishes a relatively strict separation between state and religion. The central element of this framework of laïcité (secularism) is that the state neither recognizes nor subsidizes religions. As a result, the overwhelming majority of mosque associations are registered as cultural as opposed to religious associations which entitles them to public funding.

In 1989, the decision by a school in the commune of Creil to forbid three Muslim girls from wearing a foulard (headscarf) in class, on the grounds that it breached the axiom of secular education, put Islam on the political agenda. From the headscarf issue, the debate expanded to consider the right of students to wear any conspicuous sign of religious expression in state schools, a prohibition on face-shrouding veils in public, and a ban on street prayer in front of overcrowded mosques. The public debate reflected a widespread concern with how to reconcile Islam with the principle of secularism, but it also reflected concerns with security and the threat of Islamist terrorism. The debate also raised unresolved issues concerning the citizenship of Muslims and the failure of integration policies in France.

After 1989, the French government moved to establish an organization to serve as the official representative of Muslims in France, an interlocutor with the state, complementing similar Catholic, Protestant, and Jewish institutions. Overcoming diversity and discord among Muslim factions, the newly-formed Conseil Français du Culte Musulman—CFCM (French Council of Islamic Worship) held its first elections in April 2003. According to its statutes, the Council aims to defend the dignity and interests of Islam in France, to favor and organize the sharing of information and services between places of worship, to encourage dialogue between religions, and to provide the state with representatives of Muslim places of worship. Council members are elected by delegates from their places of worship with the total number of seats on the CFCM allocated according to the square footage of each place of worship.

The French government included various independent Muslim personalities in the consultations leading to the creation of the Council; however, because the structure of the CFCM is based on places of worship, it strengthens the position of France's major Muslim federations. Today, the CFCM is dominated by the Grande Mosquée de Paris—GMP (Grand Mosque of Paris), controlled by Algeria, the Fédération nationale des musulmans de France—FNMF (National Federation of French Muslims), closely related to Morocco, and the controversial Union des organisations islamiques de France—UOIF (Union of Islamic Organizations of France), linked to the Muslim Brotherhood. Contrary to the French government's stated aim to work via the CFCM for the establishment of an "Islam of France," its centerpiece policy on Islam has in practice consolidated both foreign influence on French Islam and the ethnic divisions inside the Muslim community. In addition, it has marginalized the influence of French-born Muslims who are not well represented in the leadership of France's Muslim federations.

Further Reading

  • Arkoun, Mohammed (ed.). Histoire de l'islam et des musulmans en France du Moyen âge à nous jours. Paris: Albin Michel, 2006.
  • Bowen, John R. Can Islam Be French? Pluralism and Pragmatism in a Secularist State. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2010.
  • Brouard, Sylvain, and Tiberj, Vincent. Français comme les autres? Enquête sur les citoyens d'origine maghrébine, africaine et turque. Paris: Presses de la Fondation Nationale des Sciences Politiques, 2005.
  • Keaton, Trica Danielle. Muslim Girls and the Other France: Race, Identity Politics, and Social Exclusion. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2006.
  • Kenward, Rod. France and the French: A Modern History. Woodstock and New York: Overlook Press, 2006.
  • Laurence, Jonathan, and Vaisse, Justin. Integrating Islam: Political and Religious Challenges in Contemporary France. Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution Press, 2006.
  • Leiken, Robert S. Europe's Angry Muslims: The Revolt of the Second Generation. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011.
  • Thomas, Elaine R. Immigration, Islam, and the Politics of Belonging in France: A Comparative Framework. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2012.

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